Hook, Line, & Stinker

Everyone loves the 49ers. But even love has its limits. Are taxpayers willing to subsidize millionaire owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.'s dreams of a new stadium when economists say it's a bad deal

"Once your line in the cue is determined, it means everything," Baade says.

But such pressing questions -- just like the compelling research of economists -- will probably fall by the wayside. The 49ers don't really need cultural credibility. Nor do they need a realistic financing plan. Their ace in the hole is the Super Bowl.

To be sure, the team will hype the economic windfall of San Francisco hosting the Big Game as they argue for public money. And, they'll point out that the Super Bowl won't come unless the city builds a new stadium that meets NFL standards.

While economic benefit arguments mean squat during the regular season, Super Bowls do flood municipalities with hundreds of millions when the game visits. (The fact that they do so by drawing in people outside the area actually proves the skeptics' case for nil benefit in normal years.) At one time, Mayor Jordan had the NFL promising to hold the big game here in 1999 -- if the city upgraded Candlestick with $20 million to $30 million. When that became untenable under Mayor Brown, the NFL withdrew its vow and the new mayor was left with the goal of drawing the game in 2004. But there is no guarantee.

Which raises the question: Wouldn't it be worth it to spend $50 million to get more than $100 million in Super Bowl goodies? Sure sounds like a good deal. But consider this: San Francisco can only get the Super Bowl once every 28 years. Even assuming that we will get the bowl in 2004, which is quite an assumption, is it really worth it to spend $50 million for a one-time bang? And spread that $100 million to $200 million over 28 years, which is the real way to measure the economic impact of a Super Bowl. Whaddaya have? About $7 million to $8 million a year, and that's not figuring in the time value of money.

But again, what the Super Bowl truly represents has more to do with Eddie DeBartolo than it does with the city. The big game is a lure, an itchy tease DeBartolo is using to get his new cash cow stadium. And the stadium, above profit potential, above all else, is indeed a pyramid, as Baade says, a monument to one man's mission to define himself as a capitalist.

A new stadium and another Super Bowl would once and for all allow DeBartolo to step out of the shadow of his late father's mall empire. The struggle to build a new stadium is at one level a story of a young scion trying to free himself from the hold of a dead and obsolete dynasty and build a new dominion -- one more modern, one more him.

DeBartolo's dad, Edward J. DeBartolo Sr., carved his path with shopping malls. Starting in the late 1940s, DeBartolo Sr. built one of the largest real estate empires in the country. According to the DeBartolo Realty Co.'s annual report ending December 1995, the company owns an interest in 51 superregional and regional malls, 11 community centers, and land containing 455 acres of development potential. The value of the company on the open market is pegged by the Wall Street Journal at $1.3 billion, with $332.7 million in annual revenues. But the annual statement also concedes to $1.9 billion in debt.

Newspapers have carried conflicting reports over the years about the son's involvement in and passion for the mall business. Some wryly commented that DeBartolo Sr. bought his son the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team and later the 49ers to give Junior something to do.

But the clearest indication of DeBartolo Jr.'s passions came last month -- a little more than a year after DeBartolo Sr. died -- when DeBartolo Realty allowed itself to be bought up by its larger competitor, Simon Property Group. The $7.5 billion deal erased the remaining debt the DeBartolos were laboring under. The DeBartolos had been carrying the debt since a series of bad decisions and a plummeting real estate market left the company holding billions in arrears. In 1992, the company sought refuge in five banks that helped it restructure its debt. Ever since, the company had been shedding assets like a bad wool sweater. Last year, the company sold its stake in the Ralphs supermarket chain and its interest in two Louisiana riverboat gambling operations for a grand total of $425 million, according to the Wall Street Journal.

DeBartolo and his sister will keep a 14 percent, $500 million stake in the new Simon DeBartolo Co., but the move represents a "scaling back of his involvement in the retail industry," the Journal reported last month. "He will retain a board seat in the combined company, but is not expected to play a role in management." Both he and his sister made roughly $12 million in personal stock profit from the deal.

All the converging events -- the death of his father, the seismic shift in his business holdings, and the potential for a Super Bowl in San Francisco -- have focused Edward DeBartolo Jr.'s attentions squarely on his sports franchise and the city of San Francisco.

Last year, he launched a new company, DeBartolo Entertainment Co., a San Mateo development firm dedicated to building a 49er theme restaurant in San Francisco. Other possible projects include a card room on the Peninsula and a new wrinkle in his father's business riff, a series of entertainment centers mixing retail, movie theaters, and casinos.

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